Notices dot Woodlawn Cemetary informing plot owners that they have to claim their plots by next year to keep them from being taken over by management. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

WOODLAWN CEMETERY — The Los Angeles Superior Court issued an order last month that allows City Hall to reclaim over 200 burial plots in Woodlawn Cemetery that were purchased over 50 years ago and never used.

The order went into effect Feb. 10 and requires that officials hold off on re-selling the abandoned plots for one year to allow the original owners or their family members time to reclaim them.

If that doesn’t happen, 237 grave sites will be put up for resale to people who want to “stay in Santa Monica forever,” said Benjamin Steers, acting cemetery administrator.

People abandon pre-purchased grave sites for any number of reasons. They make the purchase and then move away, or don’t include enough information for loved ones left to make funeral arrangements to know that the plot is already theirs.

Sometimes, economics get in the way.

“When they pass away, they may not have the money to do interment in the fashion they planned,” Steers said. “They go with a different option.”

In any case, it leaves cemeteries with unused spaces they need to continue operating and California state law obliges with a legal recourse to return spaces to cemeteries if no owner comes to claim them.

In Santa Monica, the process took a little over a year. City officials had to search old records to find graves that had been purchased more than 50 years ago, or pre-1961.

Then, they had to make sure there were no unexpected occupants.

Workers used ground penetrating radar devices to comb through old grave sites.

The machines, also used to find buried utilities in construction areas and in archeological digs, shoot electromagnetic waves into the ground. Those waves “bounce” off of materials in the ground in different ways based on what the object is made out of.

That way, the operator can get an idea not only of what’s buried, but how deeply.

It’s critical to have that level of proof when you walk into court seeking to reclaim the property, said Deputy City Attorney Barbara Greenstein.

“You have to make sure that you’re backing up whatever records you have with a physical inspection,” she said.

Notices were sent out to the last recorded owner if an address was available. If not, officials posted notices in the cemetery itself and on the city attorney’s website.

Some of those records were quite old.

One George K. Boughner, for instance, purchased a grave in 1922 for a total of $80.

That’s a steal compared to modern prices, which begin at $4,500 per grave site plus a 25 percent care endowment, Steers said.

The price tag, and the naturally limited space, is what makes the process so critical to Woodlawn Cemetery.

The cemetery recently expanded its offerings to include a mortuary as part of an evolving business plan presented to the City Council in April of 2009.

The plan both minimizes the strain on its clients and helps the cemetery pay for itself.

According to a staff report, the cemetery owes City Hall approximately $4.5 million, and expects to run up another $1.1 million to get it through the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Freeing up 237 plots means a potential for $1,066,500 in potential future revenues, but also an assurance to Santa Monica residents that they will be able to make their final resting place local.

“There’s still space at Woodlawn, and this is just one more way to continue making space for the future,” Steers said.

Technically, the number of plots could have reached 271, but 34 plots were dismissed either because a family came forward to claim them or officials chose not to petition for the spots.

That would usually happen because a free space separated two family members already buried, and it was felt to be inappropriate, Greenstein said.

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